We'll be hosting our biggest-ever Science Uncovered on Friday 27 September 2013. At the Museum in London and the Museum in Tring, our scientists and visiting experts will gather across galleries and outdoors in a fabulous show of displays, tours, experiments, challenges, discussions and more.
So this piece has come about because of my participation in Twitter's recent #MuseumWeek. This was a global series of twitter questions, answers, selfies, confessions, etc. about the work, specimens, collections and staff that reside in museums. As a consequence of I have been nominated to join in the '11 Museum Blogger Questions' by Emma-Louise Nicholls who wrote a fine blog piece herself, answering the same questions and then passed the challenge on to me to talk about my life in the Natural History Museum.
Right, I will get on and respond:
1) Who are you and what do you blog about?
I am one of the collection Managers at the Natural History Museum - I manage the team who are involved with the Diptera, Arachnida, Myriapoda and Siphonaptera collections and personally am responsible for part of the collection (the Larger Brachycera - big, chunky flies). We estimate that there are between 3 to 4 million specimens in the collection here but that is a conservative guess as there are many jars of unsorted material (volunteers anyone?).
So I blog about my professional life in and out of the Museum; the collections that I look after, the field trips I go on and all the other parts that make up an incredibly varied job! I sit at this desk below when i am not in the Darwin Centre Cocoon, or the lab responding to emails asking for flies that I will send off around the world.
2) Which post on your blog did you have the most fun writing?
OK, so this is a hard one. It’s great writing about my field trips (e.g. Ethiopia or Tajikistan) as it helps me remember all of the fantastic things that I have seen and come across, as well as documenting some of the more interesting finds. However, in truth, writing the blogs about the specimens is what I really like. The one on Nemestrinidae was great because not only do I get to show off the specimens that usually remain hidden in closed cabinets but also I get to learn something along the way.
One very beautiful fly
I spend ages checking the nomenclature, reading the publications associated with the material, imaging the specimens and so really get to know set parts of the collection. It’s a win/win situation. Although anytime I get to write about maggots is a bonus.
3) If you could nominate anyone to write a blog on the subject of your choice, who would you ask and what would it be on?
Dead or alive? Hmm, I think it would have to be Harold Oldroyd – a dipterist who worked in the Department many years ago. He worked on many groups of diptera and had an incrediable knowledge of both flies and the collections at the Museum.
Amongst his many achievements he wrote a book on the Natural History of Flies which is one of the most beautifully written books I have read - his language is charming and whimsical! - and it is the dipterists bible so I often refer to it.
The dipterist's bible
It would be great to read him waxing-lyrical about all the additions and changes that have occurred in the last 50 years since this book was published. I think his take on the different ways in which we can use technology to help describe new species from highly specialised microscopes to molecular techniques would be most insightful.
4) Why do you work in a museum?
Because it is the best place to work - simple. Where else would you get such an interesting, varied job! One minute I explaining the mating habits of flies to 200 people, the next I am holding on to the side of Peruvian mountains, and then I am recurating a collection containing specimens that were donated by Darwin. I am sampled flies from poo all over the world - there are not many people who get to put that on their CV!
5) If you could spend a year in a ‘job swap’ with someone at another museum, who would it be?
Hmmm. OK would I go for specimens or the curator. Oh, this is hard. Right if you forced me to chose just one - it would be with Torsten Dikow at the Smithsonian. I really like the group of flies called Asilidae (Robberflies - see below) and he is one of the leading experts in the field.
He also manages the fly collection there and thanks to his interests in the Asilidae, the collection is mighty fine.
6) If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?
Easy - I want to go and see the Entomology collection at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii. It is an enormous collection with some excellent dipterists looking after it (and a real expert on Bombyliidae - the beeflies), and it contains so many endemic species only found in Hawaii. The collection also has the added bonus of holding the bombyliid collections from other institutes including the Smithsonian. In fact maybe I should change my earlier answer and spend the year there instead. It does have the added advantage of being in Hawaii...
7) What’s the one thing in your average week at work that you look forward to doing the most?
Looking at flies. I do this job primarily for the love of the insects that I work on. Identifying specimens and knowing that this information will be used to help us understand pollination events, climate change, vector distributions, etc. is just a bonus to looking down the microscope at some of the most gorgeous specimens.
8) Please share a museum selfie.
OK, here's me and Daz....
9) If you could sell something in your museum shop (that you don’t already), what would it be?
Either sweep nets, microscopes or Steve Marshall's book on flies. I have all of these and would be loathe to part with any. Maybe skittles [the sweet] would be good as well, for when I get mid-day cravings.
10) What is it about the people you have chosen to nominate next, that made you think they were a good choice?
I am going to nominate my colleague Alessandro Guisti. He works on the more showbiz insects (butterflies and moths) but I dont hold that against him. There is always so much going on that sometimes the only way you can keep up with colleagues is to read about what they are doing via their blogs. He writes very well and you can really feel his passion for his subject matter.
The second is Richard Jones who, although he dosent work for a museum, did once spend some time working for one and I think would have an interesting slant on blogs
11) If you turned into a devious miscreant over night, which specimen in your museum would you steal and why?
Either one of the diamonds or one of the meteorites. I’m not daft though - not the biggest but one I can sell and then buy a tropical island and then carry on collecting flies. I wouldn’t take an insect as that wouldn’t be right…
OK nominated bloggers, it's your turn and here’s what you have to do:
Answer the 11 questions I have listed for you below (you can adapt them slightly to fit your blog if you wish).
Make sure you include the BEST BLOG image (see the top of this page) in your post, and link the blog back to me, or this blog post.
Think of who to nominate next, I’d recommend two or three though it is up to you, and either give them the same 11 questions or change them however you wish.
Your questions are;
1. Who are you and what do you blog about?
2. What blog piece did you enjoy writing the most?
3. What made you want to start a blog?
4. What is the best thing about working in a museum?
5. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?
6. What is your earliest museum memory?
7. If you could be the director of any museum, which one would it be and why?
8. Share a museum selfie?
9. If you could own a single object or specimen from a museum’s collections, which one would it be and why?
10. What is the most popular post on your blog?
11. What’s the oddest question you have received in relation to a blog post?
Last week I and several colleagues (including Daniel Whitmore and Mindy Syfert) arrived back from deepest, darkest Peru. This is not the first time that I have been on a museum trip to Peru; in fact it is part of an ongoing investigation led by Dr Sandy Knapp and she joined us for part of it (read her blog about it).
So instead of telling you about the project (which Sandy has already covered) or about the amazing exciting insects there, I thought I would take time out to explain some of the less glamorous things associated with fieldwork. This little blog will detail the annoyances and the downright bizarre things involved.
First there are the 3 am drives to the airport; or rather the 2:30 drive because the taxi had arrived early. And so, on the day of travel, you find that your consumption of coffee increases exponentially... so, before I have left my flat I have my first coffee. Then your driver is Jensen Button and as such has broken every speed limit on the way to the airport and is exceptionally pleased with himself in the process. Consequently, you arrive at the airport way too early and there is nothing to do. An hour of twiddling thumbs sitting on my rucksack before the bag drop desk opens. I get through and have some more coffee.
Finally a few hours later, we board and depart during the most glorious sunset (ok, so that was nice). Then we arrive in Madrid, which I have to say is one of the worst airports in terms of having something to do; I have another coffee and wait a further four hours for my long haul flight. There is nothing to say about a flight that takes 12 hours apart from that it is not fun. Not at all. Especially when there is turbulence for half of it ... several glasses of wine and more coffee sorts that out though. My colleague Dan's flight was slightly more traumatic as he was surrounded by many children under the age of 2 :-)
So that was just the start of the trip - I wrote most of this blog sitting in my hotel room at the end with decidedly dodgy insides. I can't decide if it was the food, the altitude, a parasite or just the tiredness from these crazy roads but, at the time I was writing, all was not well in the land of Erica. I missed the last full day of fieldwork as well which was annoying, but just couldn't risk it.
The last time I was in Peru, we were on the road less travelled (as the Lonely Planet described our route). This time around, we didn't even make that! A few places that we were planning to stay were in the guide but often just with a passing reference. It was all up to Paul - our intrepid Peruvian Botanist - to lead us on our potato quest. Not always so easy in a country that does not really do road signs.
Let me continue with the less glamorous side to fieldwork. There are always the early starts (and not just the flight). Potatoes and tomatoes have to be sorted out...
So, the main reason why the team are in Peru is that at the Museum there is a group of us trying to establish what species of insects are associated with the wild relatives of potatoes and tomatoes. The collections of both the plants (Solanacea) and the known associated insects at the Museum are being digitised at the moment and that information will help us model the distributions. The fieldwork side, though, is to see what is actually there - there are many new species waiting to be described for both the insects and plants!
I never thought, however, that this would lead to me scrambling around cliff faces 4,000m up, looking for tiny potatoes, but that is what has happened. But the problem with these high altitude loving species is that we have to get up there in the first place. And this is why we have upsettingly early starts, to enable us to get high enough to find them.
Striking landscapes at high altitude, but don't try pootering here when you can barely breath...
For our first base of the trip we stayed in a town called Canta. We were only 2,800m above sea level but we could feel it - even walking up the stairs at this altitude was odd. And this was one of the lower altitudes of the trip!
We collected up to 4,800m - trying to pooter at this altitude is almost impossible – you have no ability to breath and so the fly just sits there on the leaf wondering what you are doing whilst you are desperately trying to suck the little thing up into a tube. If you have never experienced high altitudes it is like strapping an enormous rugby player to your chest as they hold on with an overpowering squeeze.
Canta and other high altitude towns were often shrowded in mist from about 3pm onwards, giving them a surreal appeal.
The accommodation is often not the most glamorous of hotels or field stations that you think of most of the time. Here we are all sleeping in one large room that felt like we had stepped out of a Enid Blyton novel ... except with added snoring ...
Not the Ritz Hotel
Now, please, add ontop of the snoring: dogs barking, car horns and alarms, and weird South American pop music for the entire night, to truely immerse yourself in the experience.
So, if the early starts are not going to kill you, then the roads definitely will. As I have already mentioned above, these plants like to get up and around in the mountains which meant some long and sometimes dangerous journeys on less than great roads - I had my stomach in my mouth many a time ... And that's assuming that you could see the roads in the first place ...
Not sure where the road goes here ...
Then there was the traffic - there are crazy drivers over here. We learnt that road signs, regulations etc. are generally just there for their purely aesthetic qualities rather than anything else:
No adelantar (don't overtake): translation - of course you can overtake and the less you can see in front of you the better! Blind bend you say; we laugh in its face, haha.
40km speed restriction: translation - surely that is just for mototaxi? I am a car/lorry/bus and I laugh at that speed restriction; if I am not going double then I am not happy!
One-way: translation - really? I am sure that it will be fine if I go 'my' one way, they will move.
Solo carril (single lane): translation - surely you are joking? I know it is a mountain pass but I must get through now ...
No Mototaxi (on main road): translation - then I shall use the hard shoulder instead, that is not the main road ...
And as for livestock...
Charging bulls can be a little intimidating, even in a car
... however, goats were better behaved
... never trust animals with long eyelashes when they are on the road ...
And, as for the llamas ... the guy was wearing a safety helmet!!
And then there were the petrol stations ...
... but at least that one had a hose ... and a wall.
"I nonchalantly lean at the possibility of a road existing here..."
We saw this a lot on the road too. Usually it meant that either there was no road to drive on, or that it had lots of potholes, or they were creating avalanches...
And more annoyingly sometimes there were good roads but we couldn't take them:
Me: Paul, why can't we take that road?
Paul: It's not good
Me: ... but it's much quicker
Paul: ... it's dangerous
Me (thinking about all crazy roads so far): Really?
Paul: Men with guns
Me: Oh... ok, let's go on other road
And what about the diet? Some of the food was a tad rich for my liking - check out these cakes...
Ummm, cakes. Rich, rich cakes.
This was a country that eats guinea pig, both the populous and their pets. We came across a dog eating a guinea pig and I thought of how my sister would feel if she knew that my childhood pet was feasting upon hers!
We shopped everywhere for food. Street corners were a must but receipts for the inevitable claim forms at the end of the trip were often scraps of paper if anything!
Then of course there is the Health and Safety aspect of the trip. Not forgetting the dodgy stomachs resulting from god knows what there are the other things that we must consider.
You had to remember the repellent before collecting near a river or your life becomes a living hell. Dan (modelling the mere handful of bites) had to sit through several days of Mindy and I complaining about the couple we had ourselves, knowing that we were being smug in our irritations.
Dan's legs model the latest must have fashion, just a 'few' bites
So next time you think that we are all swanning around having a lovely time remember that ... it is mostly true :-)
Even all the things that make fieldwork hard are also the things that we reminisce over and smile about! It is an amazing experience to be able to collect new material including new species from such remote and challenging places! You will often here us hidden in the corner of a pub trying to outcompete each other over who had the worst fieldwork belly or internal parasite. Sadly, my next tall pub tales will not be quite so good ... I did not get a human botfly this time!
In the last few posts of my blog I have been talking about the Museum’s holdings of hawkmoths, which amount to 289,000 specimens, and how the Lepidoptera section is dealing with the re-housing, care and accession of this important group.
This will be my last post related to this subject and in concluding I want to talk about a private collection of hawkmoths, specifically the Cadiou Collection, which has enriched and transformed the Museum lepidoptera holdings.
This large and valuable collection was purchased by the Natural History Museum in August 2008, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of the public.
Dr Jean-Marie Cadiou was a non-professional lepidopterist with an interest in hawkmoths.
Cadiou began amassing his collection while working for IBM in California in the late 1960s, and continued during his subsequent employment with NATO and the EU Directorates General. At the time of his unexpected and untimely death in May 2007, he had authored or co-authored 32 scientific papers and one book, described 65 species and subspecies of hawkmoths and managed to create an extensive collection of thousands of specimens.
Four hawkmoths described by Cadiou. From top left clockwise: Eupanacra busiris ssp. myosotis (Sulawesi), Orecta venedictoffae (Ecuador), Xylophanes haxairei (French Guiana, Colombia, Ecuador, north Brazil) and Rhodoprasina corrigenda (Thailand).
The Cadiou collection contained an estimated total of almost 230,000 pinned and papered specimens and when this collection was put on sale after Cadiou’s death the Museum couldn’t miss the chance to acquire it.
The reasons behind this interest were multiple:
In comparison the Sphingidae collections of the Museum at that time comprised 60,000 pinned specimens, many of which were over 100 years old.
Two colleagues of mine went to Belgium to pick up the collection in Cadiou’s house. The plentiful and various types of boxes containing the specimens had to be packed into large cardboard boxes for ease of transport.
Meanwhile back in the UK a large freezer was hired to quarantine the material before transferring it into the collection areas.
After 21 days in the freezer at -40°C, the boxes were finally moved in the collection area.
At that time the Lepidoptera collection was housed in one of the Museum's storage places in Wandsworth, while the new building that would have housed the entomology and part of the botany collections, namely the Darwin Centre, was being built in South Kensington.
Once in the collection, we started the process of transferring the pinned specimens from various kind of boxes and drawers of the Cadiou collection into refurbished Rothschild drawers. Many curators and a volunteer were involved in the transferring of the material, and eventually, just before the Lepidoptera collection was ready to join the other entomology collections in the newly built Darwin Centre, in South Kensington, all pinned specimens from the Cadiou collections were transferred into Rothschild drawers and ready to be moved in their new home.
Our long-term volunteer John Owen transferring some hawkmoths from Cadiou’s boxes into Rothschild drawers.
At the end we had filled around 750 Rothschild drawers with pinned Sphingidae (top) and an extra 70 different types of drawers with non-sphingid Lepidoptera (bottom), all these from the Cadiou material.
We are now left with 120 boxes containing papered material, some of which has already been sent to Prague for mounting.
The actual amalgamation of all the Sphingidae in one large collection started in May 2010 and is still in progress. In this project I work alongside Ian Kitching, one of the researchers in our section and a world expert on Sphingidae. The aim of the project is to re-house the specimens from the main, supplementary, accession and the recently purchased Cadiou collections, into one collection inside refurbished Rothschild drawers.
Some of the re-housed drawers of Sphingidae. From top left, clockwise: Langia zenzeroides ssp. formosana, Platysphinx stigmatica, Smerinthus ocellata ssp. atlanticus, Falcatula falcatus.
I am transferring the specimens using a relatively new way of arrangement which consists of rows of specimens facing each other. This method is particularly easy to carry out thanks to the falcate shapes of the dry pinned sphingids and has helped in increasing the number of specimens that fit in each drawer, therefore reducing the total number of drawers and ultimately the space necessary for their housing.
By February 2014 I created 877 Rothschild drawers of hawkmoths from merging main, supplementary, accession and Cadiou collections. A total of approximately 45,000 specimens have been transferred so far. These include 105 genera out of a total of 207. The re-housed taxa have all been labelled and had their location, with other important details, recorded in our electronic database.
Allow me to make a plea, before concluding. Of the 207 genera of Sphingidae so far known 206 are represented in our collections. The only one currently missing is the genus Baniwa which has only one species described in it, Baniwa yavitensis, from Venezuela. We really would like to have one!
However, this is not an invitation to collect it from the wild as this species is very rare and almost certainly protected. We certainly don’t endorse indiscriminate and illegal collecting, and specimens entering our collections need to be accompanied by a regular collecting permit. So, if there are some collections out there with surplus specimens of Baniwa, keen on giving one away (I can hear someone laughing mockingly), please get in touch. We shall provide it with a comfortable, and most of all protected, accommodation.
That’s it! I shall now officially relieve you from any further information about sphingids…well, only for a while though, because as you may have noticed, I have a soft spot for hawkmoths and can’t resist conversing regularly about them.
Thanks very much for following this blog trend on hawkmoths; I shall keep you posted with more news on lepidopterans and the Museum’s collections.
One last thing, don’t forget to visit our Sensational Butterfly exhibit, which opens on 3 April 2014. There are also some moths in the house and who knows, you might be lucky enough to be brushed past by a skilful and hurried flyer…did someone just mention a hawkmoth.
I photographed this beautiful Cephonodes hylas resting and feeding on the flowers of the a Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in a previous Butterfly Exhibit here at the Museum. Perhaps we'll be able to enjoy some nice hawkmoths this year too.
On 13 Feb a new temporary exhibition opened here at the Museum entitled Britain: one million years of the human story. It includes some images of microfossils from our collection in the display.
Scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of pollen grains from our collection that appear in the exhibition.
These and other microfossil collections housed behind the scenes help with dating the finds, reconstructing the environment, landscape and climate of these first human settlements in Britain and provide the climatic context for the recent discovery of the earliest human footprints in Britain on a Norfolk beach.
The AHOB Project and micropalaeontology
The exhibition highlights the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project and its predecessor projects. The current project, funded by Calleva, is investigating the timing and nature of human occupation of the British Isles, the technology they used, their behaviour, the environment they lived in and the fauna sharing the landscape. The microfaunas and floras mentioned here were recovered by project researcher Mark Lewis and project associate member John Whittaker.
Mark is a palynologist and has used the distribution of pollen grains in the sediments surrounding the human finds to interpret ancient climates and landscapes. Pollen grains that range in size from 10-100 microns can be found in sediments millions of years after the plants that produced them have died and decayed.
The Museum collections
Mark regularly uses our collection of modern pollen and spores to interpret the pollen floras that he recovers as part of the AHOB Project. We recently transferred this collection from the Botany Department and the images in the exhibition were taken from the collection of SEM prints and negatives that accompanies that collection.
Part of our modern pollen collection. Slides are housed in special plastic sleeves and arranged by plant family name.
John Whittaker spent his entire career as a researcher here at the Museum and is a now a Scientific Associate in the Earth Sciences Department as well as being an Associate Member of the AHOB Project. In a previous blog post I highlighted his microfossil finds from three key early human sites at Boxgrove about 500,000 years old, Pakefield about 700,000 years old and Happisburgh (prounced Haze-boro) about 900,000 years old. Many of John Whittaker's microfossil slides are deposited here at the Museum.
The pollen grain illustrations from the exhibition were chosen because of their use and importance in reconstructing ancient environments, particularly the vegetation dominating the landscapes in which the ancient humans lived. The scanning electron microscope images shown above from left to right are:
1. Dandelion-type e.g. Taraxacum - this herb indicates dry grassland or disturbed open ground
2. Dwarf willow, Salix herbacea - characteristic of rocky, open ground as found during cold periods
3. Montpellier maple, Acer monspessulanum - currently native to the Mediterranean and central Europe, this tree was present in Britain only during the last (Ipswichian) interglacial about 125,000 years ago
4. Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata - shallow water inhabitant of bogs and fens during both temperate and cold periods
5. Common valerian, Valeriana officinalis - herb indicating either dry or damp grassland as well as rough ground
Environments of deposition of sediments
Ostracods and Foraminifera collected by John Whittaker from Boxgrove indicate a marine raised beach and a later terrestrial deposit with freshwater ponds below chalk cliffs.
The saltmarsh foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens has been recovered from Happisburgh and is consistent with interpretations that the site is situated near the mouth of the ancient large river, possibly the River Thames.
The microfossils were able to show that the Slindon Sands were deposited in a wholly marine high-energy environment, whereas the Slindon Silts were deposited in a shallow intertidal environment at the margin of a regressive sea. This sort of information is vital when interpreting the archaeological finds from the site.
River sediments containing flint artefacts have been found on the coast of East Anglia at Pakefield. The oldest artefacts came from the upper levels of estuarine silts where both marine and brackish ostracods and foraminifera have been recovered.
Other evidence from mammal, beetle and plant remains suggests a setting on the floodplain of a slow flowing river where marshy areas were common. The river sediments were deposited during a previously unrecognised warm stage (interglacial) and the presence of several warmth loving plants and animals suggests that the climate was similar to that in present day southern Europe.
Pollen and mammal fossils recovered from Happisburgh suggest that the climate was similar to that of southern Sweden and Norway of today with extensive conifer forest and grasslands. The floodplains were roamed by herds of mammoth and horses. Foraminifera such as the species Ammonia batavus are characteristic of warmer climates.
Evidence of reworking of some sediments
The interglacial sediments at Pakefield are overlain by a thick sequence of glacial deposits which include till and outwash sands and gravels. These contain reworked (Cretaceous and Neogene) microfossils transported from the North Sea Basin by glaciers. This is important information as fossils found in these redeposited sediments could be give false indications as to the climatic setting and dating of any finds.
The dating of the deposit at Happisburgh is provided by a combination of mammoth, horse, beetle and vole finds as well as the Middle Pleistocene ostracod Scordiscia marinae. Work by John Whittaker and the AHOB team at a number of other Pleistocene sites across the SE of Britain has increased the potential of ostracods as tools for dating these sediments.
The extinct freshwater ostracod Scordiscia marinae has been found at both Pakefield and Boxgrove and is
characteristic of the Middle Pleistocene period. An example of a microfossil that is useful for dating sediments.
A flint handaxe recovered from sediments recently exposed on the foreshore at Happisburgh provides part of the evidence for the earliest human occupation of Britain. Several other Palaeolithic sites have since been discovered there including sets of early human footprints on the foreshore that made the national news at the time of the opening of the exhibition.
A Palaeogeographic map of Britain the in Early Pleistocene showing the land bridge between Europe and the position of the Thames and Bytham rivers. (Courtesy of Simon Parfitt and the AHOB Project)
Pollen analysis of the sediments adjoining the footprints revealed the local vegetation consisted of an open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). There were some wetter areas where Alder (Alnus) was growing; patches of heath and grassland were also present. These all indicate a cooler climate typical of the beginning or the end of an interglacial recognised at other Happisburgh sites.
Come and see the exhibition
I would recommend that you come and see the exhibition Britain: one million years of the human story if you can, before it closes at the end of September. If you can't then there are a wealth of interesting items on the Museum website including a video showing the recently discovered footprints.
Quite rightly the artefacts and larger fossil materials collected from these early human sites in Britain dominate the exhibition along with the amazing life-sized models like 'Ned the Neanderthal'. Hopefully this post has shown that there are many other undisplayed collections held behind the scenes here at the Museum that are just as important in telling us how, when and where the earliest humans lived in Britain.